Seven Steps to a Cooperative Culture

Creating a culture that’s passionate about the cooperative business model will pay significant dividends.

October 16, 2013

If we accept the idea that all organizations have a culture, the next logical question is: what are we doing to manage our own credit union’s culture?

The fact that credit unions, like all cooperatives, are owned by their members gives us some guidance—but not a definitive path—toward a possible cultural landscape.

The seven cooperative principles give us further direction, but principles are just words unless they are implemented. They can serve as a valuable guide as your credit union creates or defines its cooperative culture.

Credit unions are part of a worldwide cooperative community with more than one billion members. In the U.S., more than 29,000 cooperatives from all sectors of our economy employ nearly one million people, generating more than $25 billion in payroll while controlling more than $3 trillion in assets.

The year 2012 is the International Year of Cooperatives. The United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said, “Cooperatives are a reminder to the international community that it’s possible to pursue both economic viability and social responsibility.”

Cooperative culture

We tend to think the culture in our credit unions is fine. But how do we know?

While the CEO plays a critical role in creating a credit union’s culture, each employee, director, and member also has a role in creating that culture—and they certainly have opinions.

There are seven steps cooperative organizations can take to proactively create, re-energize, or maintain a high-functioning cooperative culture:

1. Understand it. Understand what it means to be a cooperative and why your cooperative exists. What is your credit union’s economic and social purpose?

2. Believe it.It’s important to really believe that the cooperative business model is the best—and to communicate your belief to others.

3. Create it.Brainstorm with your colleagues about what your credit union can do to show it’s different than a for-profit bank.

Some credit unions simply put a mirror in the lobby with a sign over the top that says, “Meet the owners of ABC Credit Union.” Other credit unions conduct formal training for all employees on the cooperative difference.

4. Measure it.We all know the saying, “What gets measured gets done.” The measurement step can be the first, middle, or last step in the process—or all three.

Conduct statistically valid surveys over time to gauge your effectiveness.

5. Manage it.This is the process of implementing and actively managing your credit union’s culture. Employees and volunteers should actually start to feel your credit union’s culture at this stage.

6. Market it.There are both internal and external audiences for your marketing efforts.

The internal audience includes all of us in cooperatives. We must all consistently support our own belief that the cooperative business model is the best.

Other internal audiences include our boards of directors and employees. Are we getting the necessary buy-in from these audiences to create and sustain our desired culture?

Your credit union’s members might share characteristics of both internal and external audiences, depending on their current level of awareness about being part of a co-op.

For external audiences, you’ll need to use both traditional and social media to create a unified, mutually supportive media strategy that showcases your cooperative strengths.

7. Sustain it.Change that doesn’t last isn’t change. If your culture is treated as “the marketing campaign of the month,” the impact will be minimal, at best.

Here are some questions to ponder if you want to truly set your credit union apart and do business in the cooperative way:

A culture that pays dividends

The process of creating a culture that is passionate about the cooperative business model will pay significant dividends. Engaged employees who believe they’re working for a cause, not just a paycheck, will accomplish more, be more content, and deliver better member service.

It’s true that the process requires effort, and it can be difficult to find time to devote to this project in the midst of so many competing priorities. Cultivating a cooperative culture is not easy, but it’s worth it.

The value of having more engaged employees, directors, and members is significant, and far outweighs the cost of implementation.

Your credit union can further differentiate itself from for-profit banks by incorporating these cooperative principles and values into its strategic thinking and work processes. By making this a core component of your mission, your credit union affirms its roots and attracts more members because it comes across as being authentic and truly interested in members’ well-being.

Perhaps the most important reason for cultivating a cooperative culture is to transform members’ and employees’ lives. “Cooperatives give ordinary people the ability to accomplish extraordinary things,” said Jean Jantzen, formerly of CHS Inc.—the largest co-op in the U.S.—upon her induction into the Cooperative Hall of Fame.

Credit unions reach more than 90 million people, and they prove to the world that a cooperative business model is a thriving and successful alternative to the for-profit sector.

ADAM SCHWARTZ is the founder and principal of The Cooperative Way. Contact him at 703-608-0534.